It may have been missed by the rest of the world but the Mediterranean's southern rim is brimming with a tech-savvy citizenry: the region has witnessed a booming ICT sector in recent years with many new businesses sprouting up in areas as varied as healthcare, interactive learning and intelligent transport systems (ITS).
Yet for all the technological ingenuity coming out of the southern Mediterranean, the most ambitious ICT researchers are stymied by scale and limited by the boundaries of national research policies. Now, however, a new initiative is bringing ICT research organisations from both shores of the Mediterranean into support networks so they can learn from one another.
The aim of the initiative, JOIN-MED, is to promote closer research co-operation across the region. Although each country currently has its own national research programmes, they often duplicate their neighbouring counterparts, while being too fragmented to produce worthwhile results.
JOIN-MED's project co-ordinator, Raphael Koumeri, says the initiative has shown researchers in the southern Mediterranean how cooperation can give a huge boost to their efforts. "They have very clever people, but they spend their time doing research as individuals," he says. "We tell them that they are often doing the same or complementary research. Since they are often short of cash and infrastructure, it makes sense to work together. We have been doing this in Europe for a while, but in the southern Mediterranean, they are unused to it."
The two-and-a-half year JOIN-MED project, which received a €910,000 grant from the European Commission, gathers partner institutes and universities in Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. It supports networking in two key ways. Firstly, with an interactive web directory of research organisations from both the European Union and the Mediterranean partner countries. ?And secondly, through cross-regional networking events that bring the key players together.
ICT research is already playing an increasingly important role in the entire region, not only with strong teams at universities and institutes but also with emerging research policies guiding the future development. And there is the potential for much more. In Tunisia alone, where the ICT sector jumped from an already impressive 10% of GDP in 2009 to 13% in 2011, some 33% of students are oriented towards computer science, 38% of the population is connected to Internet, and one out of five Tunisians are connected to social networks.
JOIN-MED's programming partner Thies Witti says that further down the line, the project could offer the Mediterranean countries the chance to get involved in EU research projects. "Many of them would be excellent partners," he says.
But the main achievement of the project has been to bring researchers together. "We've been able to create a new mindset. They have learned to meet and work together, which was not in their mentality before," Wittig says, pointing out that a lack of opportunity meant they had no idea about possible partners, or how to get in touch. "Now they understand how important it can be. And they now talk amongst each other, whereas before they used to hide from each other."
It was only in the 1980s, some three decades after the European project began, that the EU launched its own research programme. Mediterranean countries are a long way from developing equivalent programmes, but this could at least represent the start of a new approach by key players in the region to their common IT research challenges.
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